Far More Than Just a Cuppa

Parker Blair

Studying Japanese tea ceremonies has given me greater insight into the country's culture and history.

I like to think that everyone has that one unique interest that always catches others’ attention. I once knew a fraternity president who loved everything related to plants. Another guy I worked with loved to make the boards for charcuterie platters.

My unique interest would probably be my love for Japanese tea and everything surrounding it. Many people enjoy pairing food with wines, but I love pairing green tea with different kinds of Japanese sweets. This interest led me to join my Japanese language school’s Japanese tea club. However, the club is not centred around drinking tea, but rather the teaching of the Japanese tea ceremony, which has been carried out in Japan for centuries.

I have studied two kinds of tea ceremony: one using matcha powder and the other using tea leaves. I learned the matcha ceremony while studying abroad close to Tokyo in fall 2022, while I am currently studying the tea leaf variant at my language school in Kyoto.

The tea ceremony is a large part of Japanese traditional culture, being heavily influence by the philosophy of ancient Japan. In that sense, the tea ceremony is an act of living history. Because of this, not only do I get to experience a very “Japanese” activity, but also an activity which is centuries old. I love getting to immerse myself deeply into nooks of different cultures, which is a reason I love travelling.

The tea ceremony is an act of living history.

While Western societies are very multicultural, I feel most people’s understanding of the cultures around them is shallow. I certainly was this way with Mexican culture, as I grew up in a predominately Hispanic city. My understanding of Japan is so much greater than my understanding of Mexico because I have immersed myself in Japan, whereas I enjoy Mexico from a distance. I believe true cultural understanding can only come from immersion.

There was a lot about Japan I didn’t understand when I first arrived, especially when it came to communication. I quickly realized the differences between low-context and high-context cultures. For example, the US is a very low-context culture, while Japan is the most high-context culture. What this means is that in the US, communication tends to be more direct and simpler, while in Japan, communication has a lot of nuances and requires one to read between the lines. The tea ceremony perfectly represents the high-context nature of Japanese culture.

Within the tea ceremony there is so much subtlety and grace, both in the movements one must make, but also in the decorations. Room decor is simple, with a focus on minimalism. This means, though, that a small change to the room represents something important, and participants are supposed to pick up on this. Not only are the movements graceful, but they are rooted in efficiency, with there being no wasted movement. The language used during the ceremony is the politest form of Japanese, highlighting the tea master’s deference towards participants.

My studying of the tea ceremony—alongside the Japanese language—has given me a profound insight into Japanese culture and communication, despite very few Japanese people being able to conduct the ceremony. I understand now why the Japanese service industry is the way it is. I have learned how better navigate the nuance of Japanese communication. My respect for the Japanese way of thinking has increased tremendously.

Perhaps this is typical of Americans, but I tend to be a bit loud, clumsy and casual in speech. I deeply admire the virtues of the tea ceremony because I lack many of those virtues and desire them. It is difficult to say whether I’ve become more graceful or respectful, at least on the outside.

Even if I have not externally changed, by studying the tea ceremony and understanding the mindset behind it, those teachings have been planted within me. Perhaps the fruit of this training with bloom in the future, but in the meantime, I will continue to practice.

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Parker Blair

Parker Blair is an American currently studying Japanese in Kyoto, Japan. He is passionate about all things tea and getting to see how other cultures experience life. His current stay in Japan is the third of his international adventures.

Website: https://borderlesssage.wordpress.com

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